What defines worship for you?
Many associate worship with the singing time at church, although that’s not the only time and way we worship. But, even within that context, I think many would say they “feel” worshipful when their heart has been touched and they feel warm, cozy, loved, affirmed.
In our church’s reading through Leviticus this week, we came across quite a different worship experience:
The glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the pieces of fat on the altar, and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces. (Leviticus 9:23b-–24)
It’s not clear in the ESV translation above, but other translations say the people shouted for joy and fell face down.
What was the occasion of this reaction? Israel had left Egypt not long before, where they’d been for 400 years with only oral traditions of their faith, surrounded by pagan religions and cruelty. God was very patient with their grumbling and lack of faith at first. But after several manifestations of His power during the plagues in Egypt, His parting of the Red Sea for their deliverance, His provision of food and water and everything they needed, it sure seemed like they’d start trusting and obeying.
Instead, while He gave His law to Moses on the mountain, the people built a golden calf to worship.
God dealt with their idolatry severely. Now He had them camp for a while to teach them more about who He was and how He wanted to be worshiped. He gave them instructions to build a tabernacle with deeply symbolic accoutrements. He designated the priests and detailed their attire. Now He instituted the sacrificial system by which they could be forgiven, express their dedication, and fellowship with Him.
People had been sacrificing animals since the time of Noah. But now God designated specific rules and rituals that symbolized the coming Lamb of God, who would take away the sin of the world.
In Leviticus 9, the newly inducted priests offered the very first offerings under the new system.
God responded by manifesting His glory and sending fire to consume the offering.
The people responded by shouting for joy and falling on their faces.
I can understand shouting and falling face down. I’d likely be startled out of my wits by such a display. But joy? Shouting for joy and falling face down in awe seem like opposite reactions. But the Greek word for shout here indicates both being overwhelmed and joyful.
In Warren Wiersbe’s short commentary on Leviticus, Be Holy (Leviticus): Becoming “Set Apart” for God, he says of this verse:
The paradoxical response of the people helps us better understand the experience of worship, for they were both joyful and overwhelmed. There was joy in their hearts that the true and living God had deigned to dwell among them and receive their worship, but there was also fear as the people fell on their faces in awe. The two attitudes balance each other. “Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling” (Ps. 2: 11). Paul saw this as a desirable and normal experience in the local assembly (1 Cor. 14: 23–25). If our ministry doesn’t glorify God, then God can’t bless it and use it to help others and win the lost.
“Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.”
This is not the only time where people fell on their faces in awe in the Bible.
Feeling warm and loved are wonderful parts of our relationship with the Lord. But I think we sometimes miss the awe, or we avoid it because we’d rather feel cozy.
But perhaps a sense of awe generated by a glimpse of God’s glory and power might do our souls better sometimes. Awe would encourage us to avoid sinning against such a holy God. It would assure us that God is more than able to take care of any need we have. It would remind us how small we are. And we would rejoice in His holiness, in His power, His care, and His gracious love to us.
Someone at my college used to say that worship is worth-ship—ascribing to God His worth. The more we come to know Him for who He truly is, the more we can worship Him in spirit and in truth.
Echoing the scene in heaven in Revelation, the last two stanzas of Charles Wesley’s hymn invite is to join in awe-filled worship:
“Salvation to God, who sits on the throne!”
let all cry aloud, and honor the Son;
the praises of Jesus the angels proclaim,
fall down on their faces and worship the Lamb.
Then let us adore and give him his right:
all glory and power, all wisdom and might,
all honor and blessing with angels above
and thanks never ceasing for infinite love.
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Barbara, hi! As soon as I started reading your wise words, that Philippians 2:10-11 passage came to heart and mind – ‘that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’
There are no words that will fully begin to describe the magnificence of what that will be like. Come quickly, Lord Jesus …
What a day that will be!
I recently read through these passages as well. What fear and reverence and awe for God’s power – and yet, yes, I think there would be profound joy that this great God accepted their offering. Worship is so much more than just singing and feeling good about it. When we really see who God is, it should change us profoundly.
I think that’s the key–seeing God for who He is. So often we approach church and even our Bible reading for what we can get out of them—which isn’t totally bad. We should be trying to get something out of it rather than just going through the motions. But if we focus on looking for Him rather than looking for blessings, then that awe and joy come.
I am a stoic New Englander, and I worship in a tradition that is not demonstrative. Sometimes I see this as a real.loss, particularly when I read about the very physical responses of worshipers in scripture.
I am not demonstrative, either. And, honestly, I’m a little uncomfortable when other people are, though I acknowledge we all have different personalities and worship in different ways. For the whole group to have reacted in this way, it must have been a truly overwhelming experience.
Rejoice with Joy. When I read of how they wandered on way to promised land, I am amazed at how after all Moses and God did to get the people their freedom, they grew discontent. Such a human trait, I guess. Still is at times. Fear and Trembling because we know his power, but gladly, we also know his love and forgiveness.
Yes, we see our humanity all too clearly displayed in the Israelites and their journey here. Even the very next chapter after this experience has a downfall. God is so gracious and patient. Love your last line. There’s a song with the line “lost in wonder, love, and praise” — such a good description of worship.
Thank you for this explanation, Barbara. Sometimes I find myself reading over Bible passages without thinking deeply about their importance. I have heard “serve the Lord with fear, rejoice with rambling” before, but never connected it to Leviticus. I believe my first response at seeing the offering consumed with flames would be fear. The joy would have to come later. Maybe that’s just my reserved Lutheran upbringing speaking!
I wouldn’t have caught the joy and trembling part without the Wiersbe commentary I’m reading along with Leviticus this time. It has brought out a lot of things I have missed in previous readings.
I did not come from a church-going family, but my occasional early church experiences were in my grandfather’s and aunt’s Lutheran church. I’ve been in independent Baptist churches since becoming a Christian in my later teen years, but there were many things I liked about the Lutheran services. I tend to like the seriousness and formality, though most Baptists really don’t care for formality. 🙂 My saddest memory there was when the pastor said he didn’t have to invite Christ into his life because he had been there all along. I thought, “But what about where it says in the Bible that we must be born again?” But I didn’t have the courage to ask out loud. Thankfully, God answered that for me via another means. I remember being taught in the Lutheran church about basic Bible truths and stories and Christ dying for our sins and the need for faith—but it was all kind of nebulous. Later in college, I did meet some Lutherans who were more evangelical. I know there’s are various kinds of Lutherans just like there are various kinds of Baptists and every other denomination.
Anyway–sorry for heading down that rabbit trail. 🙂 Your mentioning Lutheran upbringing triggered a lot of memories. 🙂
Barbara, thank you for this post. Worship has been different at various times in my life. Some days it is hands up before the Lord. Other times, on my knees while other times, flat on my face. Sometimes not a word can be uttered, just the steady flow of tears in quietness. I am so grateful, He receives our worship at all. Your post brought to mind the song, “I Can Only Imagine”. Truly I can only imagine what our worship will one day be like when we stand before Him.
I tend to worship different ways at different times, too. Most often it’s more like Mary—quietly pondering things in my heart. I don’t think God is concerned with the form as much as the heart.
I love the idea of worshiping with joy and awe! Sadly that emotion doesn’t hit me a lot then. I can imagine the emotional mix though; I tend to feel it when I’m in a great cathedral, or witnessing a great natural sight (the Grand Canyon, etc). I fully expect to feel that way in heaven. I will have to be prayerful about cultivating the feeling more in my daily interactions with God — to the extent we can even cultivate emotion on our own …???
I don’t think that kind of awe is something we can work up on our own. But I remember feeling both awed and worshipful when reading Jen Wilkin’s books on the attributes of God last year. I think the more we focus on Him, the more awed we’ll be. I agree, a beautiful nature scene or a sunset or even a gorgeous piece of music can move me to awe and joy and worship.
Barbara, thank you for this lesson today. And, for this explanation. I paused to reflect on this as I processed your lesson. Blessings.
That paradoxal response is amazing! Thanks for this thoughtful post as always!
Thank you for this post, Barbara! As I’m reading through the OT, I’m struck by the holiness of God and overwhelmingly grateful for Jesus! Your post reminded me to keep my eyes and heart fixed on the awesomeness of God.
Barbara, I’ve heard of worship being described as “worth-ship” and I always thought that was fitting. I appreciate the way you’ve broken this down … we are privileged to worship God in “spirit and in truth,” not one or the other!
Thanks for the encouragement, Barbara, “’Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling.’ This is not the only time where people fell on their faces in awe in the Bible. But perhaps a sense of awe generated by a glimpse of God’s glory and power might do our souls better sometimes.”
This is spot on: “Feeling warm and loved are wonderful parts of our relationship with the Lord. But I think we sometimes miss the awe, or we avoid it because we’d rather feel cozy.”
I am learning to balance GOD (read: awe, fear, majesty) with God (read: love, gentleness, friendship). Plus all the other facets of who He is!
Thanks so much for digging into worship today for us, Barbara! I am challenged and blessed by your words every time I visit this space!
I love the image of worship being a mix of joy and trembling. Your words have encouraged me to consider whether or not I worship Him in the same way.
Barbara, you are knocking it out of the park on your posts lately. Am so enjoying what you have to say!
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